Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative

MACEDONIA/2017

Since mobilizing in response to multiple urbanization plans that represent an existential threat to the world-unique ecosystems of UNESCO Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia, the Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative has suffered various persecutions, disruptions and obstructions to its operations on both an individual and organizational level. These have ranged from attempts at activist criminalization to a campaign of fake news aimed at discrediting the initiative and its members.

The party does not forget!

JANUARY 2015: The Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative is formed from a group of scientists, activists, NGO leaders and concerned citizens in response to plans to drain Studenchishte Marsh, the last remains of a vital Lake Ohrid wetland that functions as a natural filter maintaining the extremely specific water conditions to which the ancient lake’s ecosystems have evolved. The movement soon expands to oppose multiple proposed projects for the region including an EBRD-financed express road, ski-resort and multiple shoreline development zones in National Park Galichica.

Following an assembly meeting in March 2015 at the Municipality of Ohrid to discuss drainage of Studenchishte Marsh, at which attempts are made to ridicule Ohrid SOS and thereby shut down its contribution, one activist is advised not to interfere in the wetland issue by a member of the Republic of Macedonia’s ruling party. The same activist is also informed that the ruling party “does not forget”, interpreted as a warning of future consequences should his involvement with the Ohrid SOS initiative continue.

The vanishing of the SEA comments

FEBRUARY 2016: Ohrid SOS submits extensive comments in both English and Macedonian as part of the public consultation process for the Second Draft of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Draft Amendments to the Management Plan for National Park Galichica 2011-2020, a report performed by the United Kingdom’s Citrus Partners LLP. The SEA relates to plans for the aforementioned ski-resort, express road and tourism development zones. When the documentary response to comments is released by Citrus in June 2016, all trace of Ohrid SOS’s submission has disappeared and been replaced with another document. Ohrid SOS reacts by contacting National Park Galichica (the official recipients for comments), Citrus Partners LLP, and the EBRD, proposed financier for part of the road and SEA facilitator. Neither Citrus Partners nor National Park Galichica responds to requests for an explanation. The EBRD writes back emphasizing its lack of control over the SEA procedure, redirecting Ohrid SOS back to authorities in Macedonia, and offering a meeting at the bank headquarters, which proceeded in February 2017. To date, however, the vanishing of the comments has never been explained by any of the relevant parties.

Criminal charges and threats against Ohrid SOS activists

FEBRUARY 2016: Ilina Arsova, a prominent Ohrid SOS activist, artist and sportswoman, is invited for questioning with Ohrid Police in response to complaints brought by the Municipality of Ohrid, key drivers of plans to urbanize the environmentally sensitive Lake Ohrid shoreline and drain the Studenchishte Marsh wetland. Police questions center on the activist’s peaceful activities to oppose construction of an artificial beach complex in the village of Lagadin and associated urbanization. Criminal charges—later discontinued—are brought against Arsova. It is believed that her demands in the name of the people of Lagadin for access to information regarding plans for the village was the motivating factor in attempts to pressurize and criminalize her.

JUNE 2016:, Threats are received by Ohrid SOS members after the initiative releases a public criticism of an organized 4x4 event that saw a convoy of thrill-seeking off-road vehicles cut through the mountain habitats of National Park Galichica. A photograph of one activist is intimidatingly shared online, while the aforementioned Ilina Arsova is obliquely told by supporters of the 4x4 event that they know the remote locations where she spends her free time. The convoy had been strongly supported by the Municipality of Ohrid and officially started by the Ohrid mayor.

JULY 2016: When photographing and recording the slaughter of trees, an Ohrid SOS activist is intimidated by public service workers, who verbally abuse and attempt to assault him, threatening to break his mobile phone. A similar incident in the same month sees the same activist verbally abused by public service workers again as he records further tree-cutting.

A fake news campaign

JULY 2016 & ONGOING: A campaign of fake news and personal attacks against Ohrid SOS activists is disseminated by the local media outlet, Ohrid1, owned by Megastar Productions, the same PR company as provides services to the Municipality of Ohrid’s Mayor Bakracheski, a key political figure backing environmentally reckless developments in the Ohrid region. The fake news largely takes the form of fabricated press releases sourced to a deceptive email account and signed by an unknown character named Fidan Zulfi, whose name is nowhere to be found in the official records of the Civil Registry of the Republic of Macedonia. Zulfi falsely claims to be the leader of Ohrid SOS and speaks on its behalf. He intimates financial scandal and presents the SOS initiative as extremist, divided, and out of touch with reality in a clear attempt to damage its reputation with the public, destabilize and defocus its operations, and distract attention away from the important issues it publicizes. The personal attacks include the defamation of SOS activist Ilina Arsova, whose private property is mentioned as a subject of threat. One particularly ominous dissemination also redirects members of the public to an email account that has been covertly established to impersonate Ohrid SOS, while intimating that activists may face prosecution for using the initiative’s identity. When informed by Ohrid SOS that it is publishing fabricated press releases, Ohrid1 neither removes the offending material nor desists from future publications from the same source. They remain available online to the present day.  

Forms of silent and indirect persecution

Reprisals to citizens who disagree with Macedonia’s authorities have in the past couple of years included abuse of employment procedures; weaponization of inspections and fines to private businesses; and uneven use of administrative/tax processes. Such measures are sometimes applied to family members instead of the target citizen directly. This discourages active public support for initiatives like Ohrid SOS, who are willing to speak out against government plans. Meanwhile, media has been subject to control, and the right to freely access information held by institutions has been violated with some requests for necessary documentation completely ignored.

These forms of silent and indirect persecution have undermined environmental initiatives in the Republic of Macedonia, restricting their ability to research, communicate, interact, attract members and gain support. They may not be so newsworthy or readily provable as a physical attack or explicit verbal threat, but they are equally real and dangerous to the future of the environmental movement.


Further reading:

https://ohridsos.org/press-releases/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311675876_BALKAN_GALAPAGOS_AT_RISK_-_BBC_Wildlife_Magazine_interview

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2985975/macedonia_ebrds_planned_destruction_of_lake_ohrid_biosphere_reserve.html

http://fokus.mk/lake-ohrid-a-paradise-in-peril/

https://www.biogeosciences.net/7/3999/2010/bg-7-3999-2010.pdf

https://www.yahoo.com/news/macedonians-send-sos-europes-oldest-lake-040024387.html

https://www.wetland-ecology.nl/sites/cwe.nioo.knaw.nl/files/Apostolova%20et%20al.%202016.pdf

http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/158740/